"We are of opinion that instead of letting books grow moldy behind an iron grating, far from the vulgar gaze, it is better to let them wear out by being read." - Jules Verne
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Wednesday, March 28, 2018

BLACK PROFILES in COURAGE: A LEGACY of AFRICAN-AMERICAN ACHIEVEMENT by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Alan Steinberg



Originally published in 1996.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar presents a look at American history through a different lens than you usually see. This book follows from even before the arrival of Columbus through Rosa Parks receiving her just accolades in the 1990's. His underlying theme, as explained in the title, is that African-Americans have been contributing in important ways the entire time, but they are often "whitewashed" from history.

Abdul-Jabbar is best known for his time as a top-level basketball player. But he is not just a jock (if you are a fan, you know he never was just a jock) - he is also an amateur historian and quite thoughtful. Clearly, he was inspired by the book Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy but this book is not structured in any way like that classic.

The book starts with its weakest proposition from a historical perspective. There are historians that assert that African peoples were heavily involved in Mesoamerican history (Mayas, Aztecs, Olmecs) and Abdul-Jabbar agrees with them. While it is interesting to ponder, I think that, at best, it can be said that there maybe some influence there - or maybe not. We cannot be definitively sure, even if there are tantalizingly suggestive clues, due to the lack of historical records on both sides of the Atlantic and a genetic record that has been muddled by intermixing for the last 500+ years. 


But, the rest of the book is really quite strong. I very much enjoyed his biographical sketches of Crispus Attucks, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, especially Crispus Attucks. Abdul-Jabbar makes a solid case that the people he discusses should be part of everyone's history books, not just special themed history books.

I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: BLACK PROFILES in COURAGE: A LEGACY of AFRICAN-AMERICAN ACHIEVEMENT by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Alan Steinberg.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

PROFILES in COURAGE (audiobook) by John Fitzgerald Kennedy



A Review of the Audiobook

Winner of the 1957 Pulitzer Prize
Originally Published in 1955

Published by HarperAudio
Duration: 3 hours, 10 minutes
Read by John F. Kennedy, Jr.
Abridged

President John F. Kennedy
(1917-1963)
If you have not read Profiles in Courage, it is comprised of 8 short biographies of Senators that JFK found to be inspirational in some way or another. Those Senators are: John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, Thomas Hart Benton, Sam Houston, Edmund G. Ross, Lucius Lamar, George Norris and Robert A. Taft.

Each of these men's stories were very well done, even if some of them, like John Quincy Adams' biography, actually seemed very short compared to what these men actually accomplished. But, then again, this is just a look at one point in time, not a complete list of each man's accomplishments and an abridged version of that short look on top of that.


This audiobook version of JFK's classic work is read by the President's son, John F. Kennedy, Jr. (1960-1999) with an introduction by Caroline Kennedy. The narration was actually quite good. Well worth your time to take a listen or to read.

I rate this audiobook 5 stars out of 5.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: Profiles in Courage by John Fitzgerald Kennedy

Saturday, March 24, 2018

TRUE FICTION (Ian Ludlow #1) by Lee Goldberg



Published in March of 2018 by Thomas and Mercer.

Ian Ludlow is an author of action thrillers. He writes an over-the-top action series that makes James Bond look like a kindergartner and he's on a semi-successful book tour.

But, he knows something wrong (besides the tour and his lame attempts to flirt with his tour handler) when a plane is remotely attacked during a terrorist attack in Hawaii. He knows how it was done because he dreamed it up years before when he was a part of a CIA-led author retreat. The purpose of the retreat was to have authors of thrillers think up "out of the box" terrorist ideas so that the CIA could have an idea of what they might be up against in the future.

But, it turns out that it wasn't the CIA that hosted the retreat - it was a private group that wants the CIA's operations to be outsourced to them so they can make a fortune - and they are trying to kill off the only surviving author from the retreat - Ian Ludlow.

Just to be clear, this book is written as a farce - not as a serious thriller. But, there is plenty of action, weird characters, and a lot of odd situations. A quick, easy and fun read. 


I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: TRUE FICTION by Lee Goldberg

Friday, March 23, 2018

WHAT WOULD SHE DO? 25 TRUE STORIES of TRAILBLAZING REBEL WOMEN by Kay Woodward



Published by Scholastic in 2018



This collection of short biographies is very readable - which, after being factually correct, is the most important thing. As David McCullough said, "No harm's done to history by making it something someone would want to read." 

Woodward writes in an informal, approachable style that I enjoyed quite a bit. Each biography is accompanied by a full page illustration of the woman and a little chart with basic biographical information. There is also a large pullout quote from or about her. For example, for Emma Watson there is this quote: "The saddest thing for a girl to do is to dumb herself down for a guy."

Generally, I did not like the "What Would _____ Do?" section that was included at the end of each biography. The author was clearly trying to make a connection between the women in the book and the typical American student with typical American student problems. But, trying to connect Cleopatra to a student who is being laughed at for their fashion choices or Rosa Parks to a girl being left out of group texts was just too far of a stretch for me.

Otherwise, though, this is a strong book. I am gladly handing it over to my 6th grade daughter to read and then we are going to pass it on to her teacher for her classroom library.

The publisher recommends this book for ages 8-12. I would say ages 10-15.


I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.

This book can be purchased on Amazon.com here: WHAT WOULD SHE DO? 25 TRUE STORIES of TRAILBLAZING REBEL WOMEN by Kay Woodward.


Note: I received a free review copy of this book as part of the Amazon Vine program in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

A WRINKLE in TIME (audiobook) by Madeline L'Engle



Originally published in 1962.
Winner of the 1963 Newberry Medal.

Published by Listening Library in 2012
Read by Hope Davis
Duration: 6 hours, 26 minutes
Unabridged

Madeline L'Engle (1918-2007)
Way back in the 1970's I read A Wrinkle in Time as an elementary school student in small town Indiana. I was a voracious reader (I won the library's summer reading contest several years in a row - the only thing that ended my reign was moving away) and I remember that I attached great importance to this book. It must have been handed to me by a teacher or a librarian. But, I also remember that I was indifferent to the book itself. My impression of the book was that it was unique but rather vague and cerebral.

With the new movie version coming out, I was inspired to re-read the book. Also, I must admit that I was curious to see if the book affected me any differently more than 40 years later.

This time around I listened to it as an audiobook. Hope Davis read the book and she did a fine job, creating multiple accents and voices and switching back and forth between them with ease. The audiobook also included comments by the director of the new movie (it had to have been just starting to be made when she wrote this introduction on 2012), the author's granddaughter and Madeline L'Engle herself. All three of these commentaries were excellent - for me they were the best part of the audiobook.

And, that is certainly a problem. The text of the book itself should have been the best part of the audiobook, not the comments attached to it. I found the book itself like I found it 40 years ago - rather vague, full of a lot of talking and characters that I just didn't attach myself to. I really like the philosophy behind the book - the ideas that they espouse about fate and faith and our role in the world mirror my own quite a lot. Who knows? Maybe this book really did influence me more than I knew. But, I just found myself rolling my eyes at the stilted dialogue and just about everything Charles Wallace said or did - just like before.

So, how do you rate a book in which you agree with the ideas behind it but can't stand the way the ideas are presented throughout? I'm going to split the difference - 5 stars for the underlying ideas, 1 star for the plot, dialogue, etc. That makes an average of 3 stars.

This audiobook can be found on Amazon.com here: A Wrinkle in Time

Monday, March 19, 2018

THE KIDS DON'T STAND a CHANCE: GROWING UP in TEACH for AMERICA by Harris Sockel



Published in 2016 by Audible Studios
Read by Jacob York
Duration: 1 hour, 18 minutes
Unabridged

Harris Sockel graduated from college and was convinced that he should join Teach for America (TFA) by a dedicated recruiter. He wasn't particularly interested in being a teacher before TFA, but he liked the idea of making a difference.

So, he enrolled in their crash course designed to teach a recent college graduate how to be a teacher and, in just a few weeks, he is certified by TFA and heads off to New York City to be a middle school teacher in a charter school. I teach in an urban public school in the Midwest, so I completely understood much of his commentary - the struggle to get papers graded, the struggle to copy papers (apparently an epic struggle in his school) and trying to keep everything moving forward. I particularly enjoyed his discussion of the ubiquitous SWBAT - a fairly new thing in my school.

In the end, Sockel's audiobook left this listener a little confused. Is TFA a good thing or a bad thing? Was it all worth it? Is it good for a school to have a constant turnover in its teachers as the price for working with TFA?

No real answers, but he does offer a interesting description of life in a classroom. Because of that description, I rate this book 4 stars out of 5.


This book can be found on Amazon.com here: THE KIDS DON'T STAND a CHANCE: GROWING UP in TEACH for AMERICA by Harris Sockel.

Friday, March 16, 2018

NIOURK by Stefan Wul and Oliver Vatine



Adapted from a French novel written in 1957 by Stefan Wul

Published in February of 2018 by Dark Horse Originals.


Set in the future, the Earth's ecosystem has been severely damaged by mankind. Very few people have survived the collapse of civilization and those that have live in a Stone Age society.

A shunned member of a tribal band acts out of desperate need to be accepted by the only group of humans he knows. Known as The Dark Child, he accidentally discovers some of the truth as to what happened and leads his people towards the ruined city of Niourk (New York) in search of better hunting. This is a long trip considering that they started in the dried out basin of what used to be the Caribbean Sea.

Along the way, he discovers more and more of the truth and soon becomes something more than he ever could have imagined...

Niourk is a beautifully illustrated book. The story itself has three main plot lines that show promise. Sadly, none of them are followed through with and the story goes into a disappointingly ridiculous direction. It felt like the author couldn't figure out what to do so he just finished it up with an idea out of left field just to finish it.

I rate this book 3 stars out of 5. The first 75% of the story is quite intriguing and the illustrations by Oliver Vatine are first-rate.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: NIOURK by Stefan Wul and Oliver Vatine.

Note: I received a free copy of this graphic novel through the Amazon Vine program in order to write an honest review.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

BLOOD LETTERS: THE UNTOLD STORY of LIN ZHAO, a MARTYR in MAO'S CHINA by Lian Xi



To be published by Basic Books on March 20, 2018

Lin Zhao was a political prisoner in China during the reign of Mao, from 1960 until her execution in 1968. She was imprisoned for criticizing the Communist Party for, among other things,  causing an immense amount of suffering for the rural poor during the Great Leap Forward campaign. 


Lin Zhao (1932-1968)
Lin Zhao's early life is a series of contradictions. Her family worked with the Nationalist (anti-Communist) government for a time, but switched sides. She attended a Christian school for a while and seemed devout in her faith, but then ran away from home to join the Communists. Throughout her life, she was a headstrong woman who developed a habit of speaking her mind no matter the consequences. She was a talented writer and often wrote highly symbolic poems that were critical of the Chinese Communist Party, in addition to letters, articles and essays.

When she was actively encouraged to offer constructive criticism of the Communist Party as part of the Hundred Flowers Movement, she did so. Sadly, those criticisms served as the basis of her arrest in 1960.

While she was in prison she was often beaten and treated roughly by her captors. She also returned to her Christian faith. Her criticisms of the party became much more pointed - often calling out Mao himself in letters that were never sent out of the prison. While she usually had access to ink, Lin Zhao often chose to write her letters with her own blood. She developed a way to squeeze out a little blood at a time and write with it before it coagulated.

Her letters were collected by her guards and kept in a file as evidence of her crimes. Later, years after her death, her writings were smuggled to her family. Many of them are now kept in Stanford University.

This was a challenging book to read - and not because of the topic. This book was often a dense, tedious read. If I hadn't had a couple of classes in college 30 years ago, I would have had little background as to the delicate situation that Lin Zao's family was trying to negotiate by going back and forth between the Nationalist and Communist governments. The book assumes that the reader has a solid handle on Chinese history from the 1930's through the 1960's.

Other times, the book seems to make random stabs 
into obscure corners in an attempt to give the book some context but it mostly fails. I left the book feeling like I got a glimpse of what was going on but, on the whole, it was mostly a missed opportunity.

I rate this book 2 stars out of 5.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: 
BLOOD LETTERS: THE UNTOLD STORY of LIN ZHAO, a MARTYR in MAO'S CHINA.

Note: I received a preview copy of this book through the Amazon Vine Program.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

NPR DRIVEWAY MOMENTS: LOVE STORIES by NPR



Published in 2014 by HighBridge, a division of Recorded Books
Multicast performance
Duration: 2 hours, 5 minutes

The idea behind NPR's "Driveway Moments" series is that each of these stories is so good that if you were listening to them when they were originally broadcast on NPR you would stay in the car to hear the end of the story rather than turn off the car and head on in to the house.

That is a pretty high standard, when you think about it. The good news is that many of these stories are that good. I enjoyed the story of the couple that fell in love while eyeing one another on a commuter flight and a conversation with author John Green about reactions to his book The Fault in Our Stars. My favorite may have been the story in which a divorced couple fell back in love after the husband became ill with Alzheimers. He had literally forgotten the woman who came to visit him and re-discovered what he liked about her.


But, there were some real clunkers in the collection as well. One grew so tedious that I skipped the track. Another was the reverse of a love story - it was full of bitter double entendre comments from divorced parents to their children. It seemed very out of place.

On balance, it's a good collection and well worth the time of the listener.

I rate this collection 4 stars out of 5. It can be found on Amazon.com here: NPR Driveway Moments: Love Stories.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

RUNNING BLIND (Jack Reacher #4) by Lee Child



Originally published in book form in 2000.

Published by Penguin Audio
Read by Johnathan McClain
Duration: 13 hours, 45 minutes
Unabridged

Jack Reacher is a suspect in an FBI investigation of several bizarre murders of women that were involved in sexual harassment and/or rape investigations that he conducted while he served as a military policeman. But, as the investigation moves forward, it becomes clear that he is not the suspect. Instead, he is drawn into the case to serve as a liaison between the Army and the FBI so that they can solve the case before the serial killer strikes again.

This is one of the weaker entries into the strong Jack Reacher series. There is one really cool scene at the midway point book that I will not discuss because I hate spoilers but, on the whole, Running Blind just didn't have "it". With three stars, Running Blind just has too many leaps of logic, even for this Jack Reacher fan (this is my 15th Reacher book). Besides that, I figured out who did it about 4 hours into this 13+ hour audiobook.

I think this is the second Reacher audiobook that I have listened to that was read by Johnathan McClain. McClain's take on Reacher is interesting - he sounds less physically intimidating and sounds much more quick with the smart comments - sort of like the Tom Cruise movie version of Reacher. Some of the supporting characters were voiced in an over-the-top manner. For example, one character always yelled (in meetings, in small groups, one-on-one, wherever) and one character was always super-snarky. But, others were done very well.

I rate this audiobook 3 stars out of 5. You will want to hear it if you are a fan of the series but I would not recommend starting the series with this book.

This audibook can be found on Amazon.com here: Running Blind by Lee Child.